Waving Through a Window: Precautions for Live Theater During the Pandemic

Broadway may still be dark, but theater with unionized actors is slowly coming back to life in parts of the U.S. With some extra precautions, like seating further from the stage and actors performing behind Plexiglas, audiences are now in fact witnessing performances live and in person at a few select theaters.

Earlier in the summer, the actors’ union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), approved two productions involving unionized stage actors for performances in front of live, paying audiences for the first time since theaters closed because of the pandemic. Some non-union theaters and theme parks had already resumed performances, and some theaters across the United States moved to transition from their traditional use of union actors to using non-union actors in order to allow productions to proceed without restriction from AEA. Numerous virtual performances and benefits have also been shown online. However, productions of Godspell at Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Harry Clarke at Barrington Stage Company, also in Pittsfield, were the two union shows given the green light—but with additional rules.

Both productions were required to be performed outdoors. Godspell, which opened to great reviews is currently being performed under a tent in the parking area of Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre. The show, which features 10 cast members who have been isolating together and have been tested regularly, is set in 2020 during the pandemic. The show does not have the cast members interact with each other physically or share props while performing. The production also adheres to a slew of other restrictions and rules, including a mandate that the front row of the audience sits 25 feet from the stage and a restriction on the use of wind or brass instruments to accompany the production in order to limit aerosol risks. Audience members get temperature checks, are required to wear masks, and each party is spaced from others. The show was originally allowed to perform to 100 socially distanced seats, but on August 7, when Massachusetts limited public gatherings to 50 persons, that number was cut in half. Translucent vinyl partitions on the stage also protect actors from each other when they are singing behind actors downstage of them, and actors are mandated to wear masks when they pass within six feet of each other on stage.

A few blocks away, Harry Clarke, a one-man play, was originally slated to be performed indoors but was moved outside in late July prior to opening. AEA provided permission for the indoor performance because Barrington Stage Company had undertaken multiple changes and partial renovations to one of its theaters, including overhauling its air conditioner system to increase fresh air circulation and digitizing ticketing procedures. Audiences would also be required to wear masks, undergo temperature checks, and would have to follow specific protocols for entering and exiting the theater. But even after Barrington Stage had removed many seats from the theater and redesigned the bathrooms to make new entrance and exit routes, Massachusetts refused to allow patron-attended indoor theater, causing the production to relocate outside.  

At Barrington Stage Company, Harry Clarke, a one-man play, was originally slated to be performed indoors but was moved outside in late July prior to opening.

Thankfully, both productions have gone successfully, seeing no cases of Covid-19 resulting from people attending (or being in) performances, which has provided a boon for the theater industry and a hope that at least some theater is possible as the pandemic continues.

Building on the success of these first two AEA-authorized productions—at least from a health-based perspective if not from a financial one—last week, AEA approved two more theaters to perform productions indoors in New England, where Covid-19 cases remain relatively low compared to other parts of the United States. In one instance, AEA has authorized Music Theater of Connecticut, located in Norwalk, to stage the one-person comedy Fully Committed to a masked and socially distanced audience of 25. And New Hampshire’s Weathervane Theater—where I performed in my pre-law days, having spent a summer there as an acting intern during college—has been approved to perform three shows, a comedy titled Miracle on South Division Street, the Kander and Ebb musical revue And the World Goes ‘Round, and the musical favorite Little Shop of Horrors. Each of the shows will be performed to an audience of no more than 44 people. The company’s theater is a 266-seater barn that, at least when I performed there, was home to a “barn bat” or a few that would swoop over the audience during select performances of shows, sometimes causing audience outbursts, including, as I recall, in the middle of the intimate two-person play Love Letters. (There is some irony in that the first theater selected to safely demonstrate that indoor union productions during Covid are viable is also a theater that has historically been home to the animals that presumably transmitted the virus to people in the first place.)  

AEA approved two more theaters to perform productions indoors in New England, where Covid-19 cases remain relatively low compared to other parts of the United States.

Whether these theaters will be able to turn any profit from their live shows, given the limited number of seats they’re allowed to sell, is a question to which other producers and theater companies are paying distinct attention. But even if they don’t, there is hope that they will at least result in continued employment for some theater professionals and set the stage for more large-scale, socially distanced and safe productions to follow suit. To date, AEA has been bombarded by at least 127 requests from theaters seeking to produce live shows, but the union has been very selective in granting such permissions. The entire theater community will certainly keep their eyes on these test-tube incubators to see how well the experiments perform.

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